Audience: Middle grade/young YA
Series?: Standalone (?)
Rating: Loved it!
For fans of: Matilda, Harry Potter, Willodeen by Katherine Applegate, magical schools, feminist children’s books, found family, lonely children making friends for the first time, stories about stories, tapestries, secret languages
With its thoughtful messaging about gender equality, the importance of education, and critically evaluating how history gets written and thus remembered, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is exactly the kind of book I want to give to my niece and nephews when they’re old enough. Despite some dark themes, it’s also so sweet, funny, and charming that I’ve recommended it to adult friends as well for comfort reading.
Don’t get me wrong: This is definitely a book for middle grade or young YA readers. However, as someone who regularly rereads A Wrinkle in Time, I recognize that children’s stories are often worthwhile reading for adults as well, both because it’s nice to be able to talk about books with the young people in our lives and because they’re enjoyable.
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy opens with an explanation of the role of women in Illyria. While men might have great destinies as kings or sorcerers, women raise men, make their clothing, clean their homes, provide their food, and record their great deeds in beautiful tapestries. Written by another author, this opening might be heavy handed and cringey. It’s definitely didactic, but Ursu’s clever writing style makes it fun, too.
Then, we meet Marya Lupu, who’s cleaning the chicken coop. Everyone is sure her older brother, Luka, is going to be apprenticed to a sorcerer tomorrow:
The Lupus had been waiting for this day since Luka had come into the world thirteen years earlier bright-eyed and somehow already sage-looking, as if he had absorbed enough wisdom in utero to declaim on some of the weightier issues facing a baby, if only he could speak.
Even though Marya knows the council that evaluates potential sorcerers only care about whether or not their candidates possess magic, Marya’s mother believes their house and family must be clean and proper for Luka’s big day.
Due to a combination of bad luck and an ongoing feud between the Lupu children, this turns out not to be possible. Mrs. Lupu orders Marya to stay in her room and pretend not to exist while the council examines Luka (big Chamber of Secrets vibes), but that isn’t possible either. A hungry goat finds his way into the house. When Marya tries to catch him, she only makes things worse. She not only creates greater chaos; she loses her temper and snaps at a sorcerer.
Luka and Marya both had their roles in the family: his was to make them proud; hers was to disappoint them. Someone had to do it.
It’s no surprise, then, when the family receives a letter saying Luka will not be a sorcerer. It doesn’t matter that the council explicitly stated all that mattered was Luka’s magical potential. Marya is banished to her room and forbidden from visiting her friends.
A second letter arrives a few days later stating that Marya, by order of the king, will be attending “Dragomir Academy near Sarabet, a school dedicated to the reform of troubled girls.” No one in Marya’s village has ever heard of Dragomir Academy. No one knows what will be expected of her or even what she should pack. Still, no one tries to intervene when the deputy headmistress shows up the following morning to take Marya away.
I love Marya as a protagonist. Headstrong and brave, she spends most of her time frustrating the powerful people who would like to shape her into a soft spoken, elegant lady. She sees through adults’ “pretty words” to the hard truth of what they really mean, and she continues to demand honesty and fairness long after other “troubled girls” have given up.
Despite her strength, Marya is often self conscious, quick to take the blame for injustices beyond her control and anxious to fit in with her peers:
Katya, awkward; Daria, suspicious; Elisabet, anxious; Ana-Maria, haughty; Elana, controlled …
I found her fear that the other girls in her class would not want to talk to her about the mysteries of their school’s founding and purpose both endearing and painfully relatable. Marya’s the kind of kid who’s had to take care of herself because the adults in her life won’t, and that makes me want to take care of her.
At Dragomir Academy, girls are given a wide-ranging education in everything from history to magical theory, but the emphasis is on etiquette and “character.” The school’s goal is to turn them from “troubled girls” into proper young ladies who can fill administrative and supporting roles in sorcerer’s estates. There are strict rules governing everything from the proper use of “free” time to how to use cutlery. When a student commits even the smallest infraction, her entire class is punished.
This makes finding friends difficult for Marya at first. Most of her class’s punishments come from her. However, she quickly finds a kindred spirit in Elana, the daughter of a sorcerer who wanders the halls after curfew, seeking secrets and some sense of self-determination.
Elana uncovers the first mystery of Dragomir Academy: The school is housed in an estate donated to the crown by the Dragomir family, whose family portraits still hang throughout the school. A daughter appears in three of the portraits, from young childhood to around Marya’s age. Then she disappears, and there is no further mention of her in the Dragomirs’ letters or journals.
Other mysteries soon follow: What is mountain madness, an illness that usually strikes girls in their third or fourth year at the academy and causes them to see things that aren’t there? What happens to girls afflicted by mountain madness, who return looking thin and haunted several months after they fall sick? Is the academy cursed?
Why are the magical creatures that menace Illyria getting stronger? Why won’t Dragomir’s teachers or headmaster admit there’s a problem? And why has a sorcerer, one of the country’s most precious resources, been assigned to protect a school of troubled girls?
Marya and Elana are determined to find out. As things get worse, though, they’re gradually joined in their quest by the rest of their classmates and even people outside the student body. It’s really lovely to see such a disparate group of girls, who the school’s group-punishment policy have set at odds with each other, coming together to take on the people in power.
This isn’t a Chosen One narrative. Marya doesn’t save the day through prophecy or special powers. She isn’t the smartest or the strongest or the best at anything, aside from getting into trouble. Instead, Marya takes on the bad guys with a combination of bravery, determination, rule breaking and help from her friends:
It would be nice, Marya thought, if once in a while she went into a situation with some kind of plan, as opposed to simply opening her mouth and seeing whatever came out.
I love the way she sort of stumbles headlong into trouble and then grits her teeth and hopes for the best–no strategy, just conviction. Ironically, though the adults of Dragomir Academy don’t see it, Marya’s strength of character is her greatest gift.
I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. Buy it for your kids and your friends’ kids and your kids’ friends. Read it aloud to them or save a copy for yourself.
I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Can you do me a favor?
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Hardback Page Count: 432
Preorder the hardcover or Kindle edition on Amazon.